The April 13 Coral Gables municipal election will occur without the knowledge or participation of what candidates say is an important voting demographic— University of Miami students.
Although UM students live, recreate and often have jobs in Coral Gables, voting statistics show that most are unlikely to leave their dorms and off-campus apartments to vote in Tuesday’s election, which will put a new mayor in office for the next two years and two new commissioners in office for the next four.
One day before the election, many students seemed surprised when asked if they were planning to vote.
“I honestly know nothing about the election, so why would I vote?” said Rachel Katsock, a sophomore business major.
Gables candidates, several of whom met recently with UMTV on campus and earlier in the semester via Zoom with School of Communication reporting classes, encouraged students to take interest in local elections.
“Oh, my God, it’s hugely important, and I think the way to get college kids to vote more is to understand the impact that you make,” said Rhonda Anderson, a candidate in the Group 2 commission race.
UM’s student vote could be pivotal, said Coral Gables City Clerk Billy Urquia.
“If UM students actually turned out to vote in the local municipal election, they could determine the outcome of the election,” Urquia said in a Zoom meeting to a news reporting class.
Three candidates are running for the mayor’s seat, including two current commissioners. Ten are running for two commission seats – six in the Group 2 race and four in Group 3. Commission seats are at large, and candidates may select the group for which they want to compete.
UM is located in one of the largest of the city’s 24 precincts and one of the busiest during presidential elections, Urquia said, who surmises that students may not be as interested in local politics.
Candidates also say they fear the election is going unnoticed by UM students who are either burned out from last year’s presidential election, have no idea that Coral Gables elections are even occurring and, worst, do not realize that they can vote.
But voting locally, said Javier Banos, one of the candidates for the Group 3 commission seat, is what allows residents to have a true sense of full citizenship.
“The involvement of residents is what makes a government work,” so that “residents ultimately get the government we deserve,” said Banos, 39, a CPA and attorney.
Claudia Miro, also a candidate in the crowded Group 2 commission race, said many people vote in presidential elections but do not show up for a municipal election.
“Local government is the one government that affects you the most,” said Miro, 45, who works in marketing for Miami-Dade County. “The one that’s going to affect you most intimately, most directly and most immediately is going to be local government.”
Jose Valdes-Fauli, 69, a retired banker, is another Group 2 commission candidate. He said UM is in a polling district with the worst voter turnout.
“There seems to be a lack of interest,” Valdes-Fauli said, adding that students may not be as interested in local elections, especially if they are not from the area. Valdes-Fauli’s, brother, Raul Valdes-Fauli, is the city’s outgoing mayor.
Freshman Riley Hanes, who became a Florida resident so that she could vote in the presidential election last year, said she is interested.
“Now that I’ve learned there is an election, I plan on doing some research on who is running and who could be elected,” said Hanes who lives on campus. “Although I’ve only been a resident for a few months, I do still feel the responsibility to vote.”
Hanes, who is from Baltimore, said she was caught off guard when she recently learned about the election.
“I consider myself a pretty politically aware person, and I was not aware of the election,” she said. “I think if the election was more discussed and students actually knew it was happening soon, then there would be greater voter turnout from students.”
Urquia, the city clerk, said over the years a number of professors and students have tried to rally students to vote locally.
“It’s just that it doesn’t translate to votes on election day,” said Urquia, city clerk for 12 years.
UM, South Florida’s largest private institution of higher learning, sits in the heart of Coral Gables and owes its start in large part to developer George Merrick, who founded the city in 1925 and donated land and $5 million to launch the U.
But the “City Beautiful” and UM share more than history.
Coral Gables provides the university’s police and fire protection and other municipal services, including zoning permits and building inspections. The university, in turn, has worked with the city to provide residents access to various campus activities, including some sports events, lectures and concerts.
“Even though it is University of Miami, it should be the University of Coral Gables,” said Coral Gables Vice Mayor Vince Lago, who is running for mayor against Commissioner Patricia Keon.
“I think it is incredibly important that the students get engaged,” Lago said, even though they may never be permanent residents.
“You’re part of this community. You should know who your leaders are,” said Lago, 43, an executive at BDI Construction Co. He is finishing his second four-year term on the commission after running unopposed in the 2017 election.
Keon, 72, said voting “is the most effective will of the people to get things done.”
“The reason anyone should run for office is because you care about the community and want to make it better,” said Keon, a registered nurse who also is completing her second four-year term on the commission. She previously was a policy aide to former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jimmy Morales.
Anderson, 61, said it is important for residents, including students, to be informed.
“You need to vote, you need to educate yourself,” said Anderson, an attorney, community activist and UM alumna.
Anderson is not the only Group 2 candidate with ties to the university.
Alexander Haq, 24, a UM alumnus, majored in history and theater. The youngest of all the candidates, Haq is an English teaching assistant at Miami Dade College; Jose Valdes-Fauli attended UM for a year as a business major before transferring to Florida International University. Immigration attorney Mayra Joli, 55, is married to UM adjunct law professor Steven Befera.
During their meetings with UM students, candidates discussed a range of hot-button issues, from environmental sustainability, septic tank system replacement and fiscal government responsibility, to transportation improvements.
The most contentious issue, however, is the city’s efforts to revitalize its housing and commercial base and to determine how the city will grow. With a population of 50,000, the city in recent years has been constructing high rises, redefining the traditional look of the city, especially its downtown area.
Several candidates, including Joli, have criticized some current city leaders for caving in to developers and not listening to the wishes of residents and small business owners.
Another source of controversy in this election was the emergence of a letter signed by Lago which was written by parents at Miami’s Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, a private Catholic all-girls school, and argues that “diversity” is being used to promote “anti-catholic indoctrination.” Additionally the letter cites an anti-semitic conspiracy theory.
The letter attributes various social terms such as, “marginalized community,” “microaggressions” and “implicit bias” as being derived from the “Frankfurt school.” The Frankfurt school is often used as a calling card amongst far-right conspiracy theories involving Jewish influence in America.
Lago’s previous endorsement from the Miami Herald was revoked.
As for how she would get students interested in local politics, Joli suggests candidates do something young people might like, a karaoke party, for example.
“Young people will not follow anyone who is boring,” Joli said. The elections process for young people can be dull, “like watching paint dry,” she said. “They don’t want to be bored.”
Other Coral Gables candidates are, for mayor: perennial Gables candidate Jackson Rip Holmes, 69, real estate agent. Group 2 commission: Tania Cruz-Gimenez, 45, an attorney and political consultant and daughter-in-law of U.S. Rep. and former Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Group 3 commission: Alex Bucelo, 27, an attorney; Kirk Menendez, 58, the city’s former assistant city attorney; and Phillip “PJ” Mitchell, 47, an attorney.
The city clerk predicts the Group 2 race will likely result in a runoff election. If none of the six candidates receives more than 50 percent of the votes cast, the top two vote-getters will oppose each other in a runoff, scheduled for April 27.
Derryl Barnes, Yvanna Bollanga, Isabella Cascio, Sofia Diaz, Izzy Eisenberg, Embrik Eyles, Ethan Gany, Caleb Harris, Larry Lopez, Amir Mahmoud, Alexander Munroe, Michael Pasquella, Solomon Strader, Ainsley Vetter and Hadieh Zolfaghari contributed to this report.
To learn more about the candidates and their platforms, go to the link to their campaign sites:
Patricia Keon: https://patkeonforcoralgables.com
Vince Lago: https://www.VinceLagoForMayor.com
Jackson Rip Holmes: https://www.ripholmes.com
Commission, Group 2
Jose Valdes-Fauli: https://www.josevaldesfauli.com/
Mayra Joli: https://joliforcoralgables.com/
Rhonda Anderson: https://rhondaforcoralgables.com/
Claudia Miro: http://www.votemiro4gables.com/
Alexander Luis Haq: https://haq2021.org/
Tania Cruz-Gimenez: https://www.taniacruzgimenez.com/
Commission, Group 3
Javier Banos: https://javierforcoralgables.com/
Alex Bucelo: https://www.buceloforcoralgables.com/
Kirk Menendez: http://www.kirkmenendez.com/
Phillip “PJ” Mitchell: https://votepjmitchell.com